Hubert Burda Media

Rise Of The Smartwatches

When it comes to smartwatches, the balance between tradition and innovation is a thin line. How is the industry coping?

The hot seat question posed to several luxury watch brand CEOs these two years has been: “Will the smartwatch have an effect on the industry?” With Apple revealing its Apple Watch last year to great fanfare, the hallowed halls of Baselworld and SIHH were ripe with fears that change was imminent. Naturally, the answers were diverse, but in the case of haute horology, a resounding “no” was the general consensus; because while even Apple released a higher priced range of the smartwatch — with an 18k rose gold case that starts at US$15,000 — the true competition for market share is in the low- to mid-price segment.

For all the alarm over smartwatches recently, the tech has been around for a long time. In truth, at least some 30-odd years, with Seiko releasing the RC series, the first digital watch to interface with computers in 1984. A decade later, Timex put out the Datalink, a digital wristwatch that boasted a wireless data transfer mode to communicate with a PC. Watches like these have been around for years, but have been regarded largely as accessories to a digital lifestyle rather than timepieces.

These days, smartwatches are presented as an accessory to your smartphone. Activity trackers, instant notifications and control over the phone’s media or camera — these are the functions that make smartwatches competition for wrist real estate. In 2013, otherwise also known as “the year of the smartwatch”, the trend kicked off fully when it was adopted by mobile phone manufacturers. Sony put out its SmartWatch 2 and Samsung released its first Galaxy Gear. These connected devices pushed the trend in the right direction, pacifying the public’s initial paranoia over unknown manufacturers.

With the herald of the Apple Watch, a bigger portion of the market has now opened and because we only have two wrists, the competition has stiffened. Even the luxury watch industry is weighing in with its own versions of smartwatches, a blend of smart technology combined with the best of Swiss-made watch know-how.

Accessories to your watch

Montblanc and IWC Schaffhausen were some of the surprising brands that sought to dip a toe in the digital world. But not willing to sacrifice the mechanical aspect of their timepieces, both announced in 2015 that digital technology would be applied to the straps of their timepieces.

For Montblanc, its Timewalker Urban Speed e-Strap combines wearable technology and the finesse of fine watchmaking. The device, integrated into an interchangeable strap, offers a bevy of functions that include an activity tracker, smart notifications, remote controls and Find Me functions. Able to connect to both Android and iOS smartphones, the e-Strap has only been presented on Montblanc’s latest Timewalker Urban Speed collection that features three models. The sportier timepieces are Montblanc’s best bet at converting younger buyers who are torn between technology and tradition.

IWC’s Connect follows the same principle — an intelligent tool embedded in straps. Like the Montblanc e-Strap, IWC Connect will allow owners to be connected to their smartphones via Bluetooth and will have the ability for smart notifications and activity tracking. Georges Kern, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, explained that seeing many of the brand’s customers and ambassadors using connected devices (fitness trackers and the like) alongside IWC watches drove the brand to “develop an elegant, aesthetically complementary solution that eliminates the need to have additional devices on the opposing wrist to your IWC.” He added that the essence of the IWC Connect is it doesn’t interlope with the brand’s timepieces; it is instead “an intelligent design solution that perfectly integrates and underlines (their) product worlds”.

Another brand looking to distance the digital and mechanical is Kairos. It offers the Hybrid Watch that combines a mechanical movement and a digital interface over the dial for notifications, tracking and the like. Don’t want to be disturbed by the tech? Switch it off and look at traditional time beating steadily behind. Kairos has also built on the public’s desire for both worlds with its own T-Band that operates in the same way as Montblanc’s e-Strap or the IWC Connect.

Fringe Benefits

While the activity tracking route and notification is one that has taken off for IWC and Montblanc, other brands are looking to streamline other factors in daily life. Bulgari’s latest Diagono Magnesium Concept looks to solve the issues of security, playing on the idea that your watch can now be used to unlock just about anything digital.

Working alongside WISeKey, a Swiss NFC (near-field communication) tech company, the brand unveiled its plans for a self-winding mechanical watch with an NFC chip that can store vast amounts of encrypted data and communicate this with paired devices. The encrypted data that Bulgari wants to help you with are all your passwords, PINs, bank details and frequent flyer details that you would no longer have to memorise. In theory, the Bulgari Magnesium Diagono Concept will allow you to unlock your smart car once you’re close enough, or even enter your house should you choose to use a digital lock.

Like Montblanc and IWC, the NFC chip in the Bulgari Magnesium Concept will not affect the mechanical movement of the watch. In a sense, Bulgari’s addition to this emerging “luxury smart-tech timepiece” category is skewed towards streamlining your everyday life, a worthy notion that will no doubt see this tech as a contender soon enough.

Breitling, on the other hand, is ramping up its “smart tech” agenda, placing emphasis on function over form, as can be seen from its Cockpit B50 Superquartz watch from 2014. True to its name, its list of functions reads like an airplane’s actual cockpit: A perpetual calendar, 1/100th of a second chronograph, alarms, battery charge indicator, countdown timer, electronic tachometer, second time zone, count-up mission elapsed time (MET) indicator and a flight time chronograph.

Building on the B50, the brand went one step further in 2015 with the Breitling B55 Connected. Described as the “easier to use” B50, it allows users to adjust all the aforementioned functions on their smartphones, making your smartphone the remote control to your watch.

Future progress

At Baselworld 2015, TAG Heuer announced it was partnering Google and Intel to create its own smartwatch. The recently unveiled and hotly anticipated TAG Heuer Connected is a titanium-clad gadget that looks very much like the famous Carerra chronograph, except there’s nothing mechanical about it.

The transflective LTPS LCD display shows three dials that one can choose from: A standard three-hander, GMT and a chronograph that starts, stops and resets by tapping on the screen. Although its capabilities are similar to other Android Wear watches, the Connected offers an extremely appealing trade-up option: After two years, for an additional US$1,500, you can exchange it for a similar Carerra design that comes with a mechanical movement.

The message is clear — there is a new segment within watchmaking and it is still open to interpretation. The future holds interesting possibilities and only time will tell what technology may sit on our wrists. But at the end of the day, after all the hype has died down, consumers fall back on authenticity. No smoke, mirrors and batteries — just a reliable, pedigreed wristwatch with a mechanical beating heart.